On the new Poetry Series:
These poetry books span an honest documentation of a young mans attempt at spiritual ascent in a secular world. The 6-part series was not started as ‘a series’ and had little or nothing to do with spirituality when it began. Indeed, it was basically born out of a, “sudden and uncontrollable urge,” by the author (Anglo-Afghan novelist and musician Yusuf Misdaq) to write poems. In his own words, “Something just came alive; a tap, and it kept running. Sometimes I wondered when it would stop but I didn’t spend too long questioning it. I let it all come, and made time in my day to record what came.” This began around 2006, with the poet writing, “goodbye letters and lullabyes,” to his hometown of Brighton, UK. In making the sudden and difficult decision to leave England, the author’s, “beloved homeland of birth and bones,” Misdaq had decided that he needed to be in a more nurturing place if his art was to grow. England had sadly become “almost religiously zealous in its aggressive atheism,” and what existed of ‘British Islam’ had never spoken much to his mind or heart. He reasoned that an atmosphere of such skepticism with regards to spirituality was neither desirable nor acceptable for the growth of such a sincere and earnest artform as poetry, at least his poetry, which is marked by its candid nature and, as writer Christopher Reiger puts it in the foreword, ‘is generally devoid of pretension.’ “The English, of course, celebrate pessimism,” says Misdaq with a smile, “and I used to welcome that as a part of being not only English, but an artist too. It’s a very easy feat to accomplish when you remain in the intellectual realm. The ironic thing is that so many poets get away with staying in that safe intellectual realm. No-one is calling them out because poetry has become so stale that no-one expects anything more of it. The primality that I express here is a reclamation of the possibilities of poetry. Possibilities of sounds that emanate from our bodies as well as the more easy thoughts from minds.” As for England, Misdaq reasons that there is, “only so much failure and unhappiness one can spin in a romantic way. Those unintelligent, patronizing and frankly ridiculous bus signs telling me to ‘enjoy my life because there wasn’t a God’ just added to the feeling that I was being politely asked to leave my homeland, through cosmic chords of both circumstantial coincidence and conscious friction.”
From an author who claims to have predicted Vitamin Water in his first novel (see Pieces of a paki) Misdaq’s sense of the ‘trends and ends’ in society begin to seem all the more prescient in poetry form, notably in the wake of the recent riots in England. In the first book, Brighton Streets, for example, a piece dating back to 2007 finds the poet speaking -almost unwillingly- of ‘seeing a deluge coming;’ this unabashedly bold poem (or vision?) depicts a deluge of blood and chaos that has entered British Society ‘from the side entrance‘ because one too many social and moral maladies have left it open for an ‘implosion / flood’. ‘I cannot stop it, my loves,’ he ends poignantly. “That [more scholarly] sort of poetry, and those empirical ways of seeing [in Western Society], begin to actually constitute human cruelty. They lay the ground for unhappiness and, ultimately, chaos. And chaos sounds cool and it’s been very fashionable to talk about, but it’s not so cool when your life is in danger. The poetry I was digging in those years came from people who really looked deep inside and weren’t interested in whether or not they were fashionable, poets like Herman Hesse and John Keats as well as the Sufi poets, Hafez, Rumi and others.”
Where is the sun of you?
The giving child who runs in you?
Who doesn’t know or care where to
Doesn’t try so hard for why …
Where is the dance in you?
The cerulean blueish France in you?
The mountain hiking chance in you
Who does for Dreams, not what is due
It is perhaps unsurprising that the physical journey Misdaq undertakes (as a backdrop to these books) is just as colorful as the poems he writes. Setting out for the hopeful shores of, “a more open America,” was his somewhat vague plan, arriving in a “hot, messy and wild New York City” on July 4th, 2008, some five months before the election of Barack Obama (which features prominently in the fourth book Spilling Kingdoms). Through the sensitively observed street scenes of Brighton, London, Venice, Washington DC, Cyprus and New York City, to the lush backdrops of nature, and the often-humorous political worlds of Embassies, or the subtle workings of News Media (the author composed a great deal of the pieces whilst working jobs at the Embassy of Afghanistan, and at numerous News Media organizations including Democracy Now! where he recently worked as a field-producer at the outset of the Libyan uprising) we find a series of books that, ultimately, deals unapologetically with the same eternal questions that philosophers and artists from Socrates to Paul Gauguin and Terrence Malick have been asking for all time, “Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?” And don’t let the “where” lead you to think that Misdaq is solely interested in exploring a potential ‘afterlife,’ for these books are just as much about an attempted reconciling of human ambition with spiritual aspiration. The much-written about ‘Poem of Delicious Affirmation’ (see The Butterfly Gate) is a perfectly shocking and pained admission of this spirit/flesh paradox that needs to be experienced more than just read. Indeed, no amount of descriptive writing (including this truly insufficient attempt) can capture the ‘immediacy’ that these poems have. ‘Wage Slave’ (also from The Butterfly Gate) typifies a good portion of pieces which give a voice to an emerging class of young, materially comfortable and yet spiritually malnourished workers:
This is no way to spend the future
Unmended and medicated
Routin’d into silence
With no Coltrane running through the heart
This is no way to dive into tomorrow
Hesitant and filled with fear
Hanging on for dear life
To the secure bullet
Spurred on by a very personal admission of a serious accident that took place in America (detailed ‘beautifully’ in the afterword of the 5th book, The Beautiful / Palace Prayers) the authors “search” (much more an internal dialogue between dissatisfaction / instinct, as opposed to a more labored and deliberate ‘search’) begins to take on a level of intensity that is matched only by the magic of the language, a language running on the hybrid fuel of faith/magic/mystery. The poem-tones, like their covers, vary in color from yellow-euphoria, to grey-seriousness, to black-blood-pain, all the way to pink-psychedelia, bright-white-wryness, and sometimes blue-humor. However it is the increasing (and all-encompassing) spiritual dimension that runs under and through these books, making itself felt more and more as the series develops, and culminating in a visit to a living Sufi Saint in the sixth book Lefke Automatic / Destiny of Love. The author’s boldly honest, occasionally scholarly and yet still heartfelt relationship to Islam makes for compelling poetry and prose writing (notably the excellent afterwords and prefaces to Spilling Kingdoms and Lefke Automatic, respectively). As Professor Ernest McClain says, some of this, “particularly angular social commentary” seems to capture the zeitgeist of not only British-Islam but peeks softly behind the veneer of its more well-organized American counterpart. After such a long and sometimes politicized search, the series culminates in a swaying between Sufi (divine) and human (romantic) love poems that take on a tone that is (typical of Misdaq’s dynamic verse) both deeply traditional and ultra-contemporary.
Even on this cheap tissue paper
Flowers are embossed.
We can’t live without
Ornaments and choirs and
Floral scenes and
We can’t function well if nothing matters
If you die when you die
And if all the colorful traditions
Are just ‘subjects’ to study
Which only a fool would believe in.
Written in the frankest, most unpretentious language of ‘today,’ whilst retaining an intelligent and mystical, ‘deeper-than-the-first-glance’ feel, these vivid collections act, if it isn’t too bold to say, as the eyes and heart of our modern world, enacted (read: experienced) through the eyes and heart of a young writer living in it, someone who had, “basically bought into it,” and finally, made the decision to try to leave it, before returning to it in all its splendor, “not just with rose-colored glasses, but light-colored glasses, glasses with burning, setting suns inside of them them. Real sunglasses!” The much talked about personal style, (if we are able to take it on) has the effect of pushing its insistence on truth right up into the readers eyes, showering everyone in sight with the sort of warmth one can only feel when one has touched the heart of someone else, and thus touched one’s own heart. Through its clarity-reflections on family and childhood, fantastic word-combinations, wide-eyed enthusiasms, and interconnected, web-like incantations (expressed through themes of unity and universal Oneness) this series is perhaps just as close to a historical document of these times (as they will one day be called) as it is to contemporary poetry (whatever that truly is). Most striking for me are the un-romanticized, gritty mirrors that these books give us to hold; mirrors that show us some of the ugliness we have adorned ourselves with (and thus come to think of as ‘normal’), some of the sacredness that we have lost, and some of the sheer limitlessness of what we hope to re-attain.
How deep am I dreaming?
How dark are my delusions?
What is from Him?
And what is from me?
Help me to drown my heart once again
Help me to mess up the perfect practical
Painting by throwing a tin of
WHITE onto it.
Help me to ‘take my shoes off
And throw them in the lake!’
– Joshua John-Brownwell